Metastatic melanoma survivor gives hope to new patients
MD Anderson staff
After doctors successfully removed a melanoma from J.P. Rodriguez’s back in 2006, he resumed his life – working, spending time with family and not thinking much about the disease.
But in 2008, J.P. began to experience headaches, weakness and even a blackout.
Doctors couldn’t figure out the problem until J.P.’s wife mentioned his cancer history during an ER visit. Knowing melanoma can spread, the doctor ordered an MRI. It showed a growth in J.P.’s brain.
The news came as a shock to J.P. “I’d never investigated melanoma or given it much thought. When they said there was no cancer in 2006, I just assumed I was done with cancer,” J.P. says. “When 2008 came around, I didn’t put it together that these could be related.”
Choosing MD Anderson for brain tumor treatment
After that first metastasis, J.P. underwent a craniotomy at a San Antonio, Texas hospital. The procedure was successful, but the recovery was difficult. While he was recovering, one of his doctors told him about MD Anderson.
“He told me that his father went to MD Anderson for cancer treatment and did very well,” J.P. recalls. “My wife became very interested. After the recovery period, we started investigating.” Liking what they read, J.P. made an appointment at MD Anderson.
Since J.P. just had surgery to remove metastasis, his doctor at MD Anderson, Nicholas Papadopoulos, M.D. (now retired), didn’t have a growth to treat. Papadopoulos suspected that J.P.’s cancer had turned aggressive, though, and had him undergo an MRI every one to two months -- far more frequently than normal.
Less than a year after J.P.’s initial metastasis, a scan found a second growth in his brain. Within a few days, he was scheduled to undergo Gamma Knife® sterotactic radiosurgery – a non-surgical procedure that kills cancer cells with a highly focused, powerful beam of radiation.
A change in brain tumor treatment plans
But before his Gamma Knife surgery, J.P. fell down and couldn’t get up. His family took him to a San Antonio emergency room, where doctors advised him to head straight to MD Anderson. A scan showed that this metastasis had grown significantly in just a few days and was bleeding. Our doctors cancelled his Gamma Knife surgery, and Sujit Prahbu, M.D., performed a second successful craniotomy that same day.
“It was the most fantastic experience,” J.P. recalls. “When I had surgery in San Antonio, it felt like I was just a number. At MD Anderson, I felt like a person.”
“I’d rather go through Gamma Knife® than a craniotomy”
That surgery wasn’t the end of J.P.’s cancer journey. Following his second craniotomy, doctors implanted an Ommaya reservoir under J.P.’s scalp. They then used this special catheter to deliver Interleukin, a type of medication that stimulates the immune system, directly to J.P.’s cerebrospinal fluid. But he went on to develop growths in 2009 and 2011. Thanks to frequent monitoring, Papadopoulos caught these brain metastases early enough to successfully treat them both with Gamma Knife surgery.
That procedure, J.P. says, has its difficulties: In order to make sure they hit the tumor directly, doctors had to screw a halo into J.P.’s skull to hold it in an exact position.
“Still, I’d rather go through the Gamma Knife than a craniotomy,” he says. “With Gamma Knife, there’s no incision or trauma that requires days in recovery. With Gamma Knife, I was there for just a little bit, then I could go home that day.”
A commitment to help others
Now under the care of Isabella Glitza, M.D., Ph.D., J.P. hasn’t had another metastasis in nearly six years. But being a survivor of four separate brain metastases is now a big part of J.P’s identity – and of how he helps others. Seeing it as a spiritual duty, he regularly talks to acquaintances, friends and friends of friends who’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer. During these conversations, he listens to their worries, shares the ups and downs of his own cancer journey and encourages them to look into MD Anderson. Most importantly, though, he tells them to stay hopeful.
“I feel like my God has helped me get through four brain tumors to be a witness and encourage others who have been diagnosed with cancer. I can let them know that you can make it,” he says. “You can have your life back.”